All organizations, whether they are small businesses or multinationals, rely on communication. Workers need to keep customers and suppliers informed, but they must also ensure good communication within the organization. Poor communication leads to lack of innovation and development, silo thinking and lack of growth. Yet sometimes it’s not the people working in a business who are poor communicators, but the structure of the organization itself that causes problems.
Businesses that have been built up by a single entrepreneur or a small group of people frequently develop problems as they grow. When the business is small the leaders can easily communicate with everyone. But as it grows communication becomes more difficult and assumptions are made about the way that information is passed on. Unless there are clear plans for information pathways, it’s easy to assume that managers or team leaders are passing on information to their staff when they’re not.
Communication in any organization happens in three directions: up, down and sideways. Upwards communication is from front-line workers to management and the Board. This might include suggestions, complaints or problems that can’t be resolved. Downwards communication is from the leadership team to lower-level managers and staff. This will often be directives for new working practices or products, but should also include information about the organization’s ethos, aims, and progress. Communication between co-workers or between departments – sideways – will include sharing ideas and good practice. In unhappy or toxic organizations, complaining and blaming will almost always be sideways communication.
Most organizations manage to communicate better in one or two directions. Businesses that communicate well up and down can clearly pass on aims and directives to staff and get feedback in return but may have difficulty communicating between teams and departments. This commonly manifests as all communication needing to go through management, i.e. a message needs to go up several levels before it can go sideways.
Organisations that communicate up and sideways have staff that are engaged with each other and who give feedback about performance to management but receive little direction. Staff often feel that they’re not listened to – although that’s not true – because they don’t get any feedback. It’s difficult to steer through changes in this type of organization because the frontline staff isn’t clear about the reasons for or the objectives of change.
Where communication is mainly down and sideways staff are often unhappy and tend to share grievances with each other rather than bringing them to the attention of management. There will be low levels of staff engagement in taking the business forward; management are often perceived as being in an ivory tower, remote from the concerns of workers, which breeds further resentment.
Of course, these communication patterns apply outside the organization too. Some businesses have good communication between the Board and frontline staff, but poor contact with customers. Or suppliers may find it easy to communicate with the staff with whom they have direct contact, but hard to raise issues with higher management.
If you’re aware that your organization has poor communication in one of these directions, the first step is to avoid blaming specific people. Complaining that a particular person never shares what she thinks, or that someone else never gives clear instructions, will not solve a problem that is caused by the structure of the organization. Next, map the lines of communication. Who is responsible? What gets passed on? Does it reach its intended audience? How are complaints and disciplinary issues dealt with? How easy or difficult is it to share good practice? This will give you a much clearer idea of where the structural weaknesses are in the organization, and you can then begin working on a plan to address these. Don’t forget that the first step in a plan to improve communication is to make sure that everyone is aware of and invested in the plan!
Organisations grow and develop over time and sometimes the pathways for effective communication don’t grow with them. Information networks may develop in a patchy way or might not be present at all. Map the communication networks in your organization to discover which is the weakest direction – up, down or sideways – and then deliver a plan to rectify this.